The Mamluks – Medieval Islamic history

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A Mamluk inn for merchants in Cairo

Mamluks: A Mamluk inn for merchants in Cairo

Mamluks were enslaved soldiers

The Mamluks were originally enslaved bodyguards of the Abbasid caliphs of the Islamic Empire (the word “mamluk” just means “slave” in Arabic). Starting around 850 AD, the Abbasid caliphs captured or bought young boys who were not Muslims as slaves. The caliphs brought the boys up to be Sunni Muslim soldiers in a slave army. These men made a great army and there soon got to be more and more Mamluks.

Nureddin and the Second Crusade

In 1144, the Mamluk general Imad-ud-Din Zangi conquered Edessa, one of the Crusader states founded after the First Crusade. Zangi’s own slaves killed him shortly after that, when he caught them drinking his wine. When the Second Crusade arrived to win Edessa back, Zangi’s son Nureddin fought them off successfully, and after the Second Crusade ended without taking any of his territory, Nureddin created a kingdom for himself by conquering Damascus from local Muslim rulers.

Coin of Shajar al-Durr, with Arabic writing

Coin of Shajar al-Durr, with Arabic writing

Mamluk generals conquer Jerusalem

During the 1100s AD, other Mamluk generals worked for the Ayyubid sultans in Egypt and Syria, but little by little the sultans had less power and the Mamluk generals got more and more power. In 1244, the Mamluks conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders, and in 1245 Louis IX of France led the 7th Crusade to try to get it back, but the Mamluks captured him.

Mamluks take over Egypt and Syria from the Ayyubids

In 1250 AD Shajar al-Durr, the mother of the last Ayyubid sultan, killed her son and ruled on her own. She negotiated to end the 7th Crusade and let Louis go. Shajar al-Durr soon had to marry the Mamluk leader, Aybak, in order to keep power, but she continued to rule, But in 1257 she had Aybak killed. After that the other Mamluks arrested al-Durr herself and then killed her, and the Mamluks got control of Egypt and Syria.

Battle of Ain Jalut: Mamluks defeat the Mongols

Battle of Ain Jalut

The Mamluk sultans who came after Aybak were the Bahris. They were mainly from Turkish and Mongol families. They ruled Egypt and Syria, and sometimes the Arabian Peninsula.

Mamluks defeat the Mongols

When the Mongols invaded Syria in 1260 AD, the Bahri Mamluks defeated them at Ain Jalut and pushed the Mongols back to Iran. It was the first time anyone had defeated the Mongols in a big battle, and it prevented the Mongols from adding the Romanized half of the Islamic Empire to their Mongol Empire. The man who led the Mamluks, Baybars, became sultan after the battle.

Mosque of Baybars in Cairo

Mosque of Baybars in Cairo

Baybars defeats the Crusaders

Baybars and the Bahri Mamluks defeated the last of the Crusaders in 1263. The Mamluks really hated the Crusaders, because the Crusaders had made an alliance with the Mongol Khan Mongke against Islam. There was a big battle at Antioch, and in the end the Mamluk soldiers won. They killed 16,000 Christian soldiers and sold all of the hundred thousand people living in Antioch as slaves. (Compare this to Alexander at Tyre, or the Athenian massacre at Melos)

Mamluk trade with Europe – and the Black Death

From 1293 to 1340, the sultan al-Nasir enjoyed an unusually long reign of 47 years! The Mamluks were very powerful, and his court was very rich with gold and all kinds of luxuries. Mamluk traders sold sugar and paper to Europe, and Mamluk Christians brought the idea of painted Easter eggs to Europe. But this long period of peace and wealth ended just after al-Nasir’s death when the Black Death, or bubonic plague, came to Cairo in 1347 AD and killed many of the people who lived there.

The Ottomans defeat the Mamluks

After 1382 AD, another group of Mamluks took charge. These sultans were called the Burjis, and they were mainly Circassians from southern Russia. There was less peace and more fighting among the Burjis. Instead of exporting paper, Egypt began to buy things like papersewing thimbles, and sugar from Europe. But they were still very good soldiers against other people too. In 1426 AD, for instance, Mamluk soldiers conquered the island of Cyprus, where Europeans had been growing sugar with the work of African slaves. In 1440, the Mamluk army attacked Rhodes, but they could not take it. By 1517, however, the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks and took over their empire.

Learn by doing: playing polo
More about the Ottomans

Bibliography and further reading about the Mamluks:

More about the Islamic Empire home

By | 2017-12-28T16:13:46+00:00 July 25th, 2017|History, Islam|7 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. The Mamluks – Medieval Islamic history. Study Guides, July 25, 2017. Web. January 22, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. emma swan December 15, 2017 at 11:57 am - Reply

    I’m so SUPER confused

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr December 15, 2017 at 12:19 pm

      Wow, I’m sorry you are all struggling! What are you trying to find out?

  2. fluffy December 15, 2017 at 11:50 am - Reply

    I don’t under stand the artical!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • sally girl December 15, 2017 at 11:53 am

      me either!!!!

  3. Gabriel Perlin November 18, 2017 at 11:12 pm - Reply


  4. Gabriel Perlin November 18, 2017 at 11:11 pm - Reply

    I am reading “The Arabs: A History” by Eugene Rogan and this page was helpful in understanding the Malmuks. Thank you!

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr November 20, 2017 at 3:35 pm

      Happy to hear it! Please feel free to ask here if you still end up with any questions, and we’ll try to answer them.

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